Friday, 2nd June 2023

The Seyi I knew

By Victor Onyenkpa
20 March 2021   |   3:00 am
I will not write a tribute to Seyi. Writing one would mean I accept he is actually gone. That is a reality I am not ready to face yet.

Seyi Bickersteth

I will not write a tribute to Seyi. Writing one would mean I accept he is actually gone. That is a reality I am not ready to face yet.

The news of Seyi Bickersteth’s death on 3rd March was a shock to everyone who knew him. He was hale and hearty and in high spirits the previous day. And somehow, he did not come across as the sort of man that would go to bed and just not wake up the next day. He was too full of life for that!

I first met Seyi in 1990. I had been interviewing to join the firm KPMG (Arthur Andersen as it then was) and the interview with Seyi was to be the final one to determine whether or not I join the firm. The interview was scheduled for 10 am on a Monday. And as is usual with fresh graduates looking for a job, I got to the office at a few minutes past 9am. I settled down to wait, after informing the Receptionist of the reason why I was there. When it was 5 minutes past 10am, I went up to the receptionist to remind her that I was supposed to see Seyi at 10am. She assured me she had not forgotten and that she would let me know as soon as Seyi was ready to see me. I think I got up to remind her every 10 minutes thereafter. Having come all the way from Aba for the interview, I wasn’t going to let some forgetful receptionist blow my chance of joining the prestigious firm! Eventually, at about noon, I decided to go and get something to eat and diligently informed the receptionist, just so she does not think I had gotten impatient and left.

On my way back, I was feeling rather self-conscious of the several times I had gone to the receptionist to remind her of my interview, and so decided to quietly sit down. But as soon as I got in, she informed me that Seyi was ready to see me. Apparently, he had come in while I was out. She had called to let him know I was back as soon as she sighted me walking in through the gate. She was still describing how I would get to his office when Seyi himself came down the stairs and took me to his office. Being the Aba boy that I was, I rounded up on him on how our interview was supposed to be at 10 am and how I had been waiting for him since then. He apologized profusely and informed me he had to see a client at short notice. Back in the day, there were no mobile phones and landlines were few. The interview itself lasted about 30 minutes, at the end of which Seyi asked me when I would like to resume.

Knowing what I know now, I realize that that sort of rather aggressive behavior would likely have cost me the job, as most interviewers would have considered it disrespectful. But not Seyi. He looked through all of that and saw a boy who was not afraid to express his views. I also suspect it made him take a particular interest in this rather unusual Aba boy.

I remember when I was a young manager in the firm and was a member of an ad-hoc committee set up to do a salary survey of other firms and make recommendations on the salary to be paid to various levels of staff. Dotun Sulaiman was the Managing Partner at the time, while Seyi was the Head of Tax. We had been invited to present our findings and recommendations to the leadership team of the firm. Somewhere in the course of the meeting, Seyi and another member of the leadership team who was an expatriate disagreed on something. I don’t quite remember what the disagreement was about, but I do remember to this very day, how Seyi stayed focused on the subject of the disagreement and refused to get personal, in spite of several provocations. Needless to say, that act made a lasting impression on me. I have, on several occasions, been in a similar situation as Seyi was on that day, where the other person had gotten personal. I have to admit that I have often taken the bait and have not always stayed on the subject. But I have the Seyi formula, so I will keep trying.

Seyi epitomized humility. Not the sort of humility most of us like to think we have. But real humility. He was completely inured to the sort of expectations most of us have, by virtue of our position. This enabled him to genuinely relate to different people across different levels of society.

Seyi had the memory of an elephant. Yes, he did! I doubt he ever forgot someone he met, no matter how briefly. I certainly know he didn’t forget whatever you said to him!

I remember when OBJ assumed office as civilian President in 1999 and had made a dear friend, Solomon Giwa-Amu (may his soul rest in peace) his ADC. I had casually mentioned this to Seyi in the course of a conversation and promptly forgotten it. You can therefore imagine my surprise when Seyi told me about a year later that he had been trying to arrange a business meeting with the President on behalf of operators in a particular sector of the Nigerian economy. All the channels he had tried had not been successful, so he wanted me to get my friend, who was the ADC, to make it happen! Solo, as we called him (bless his soul) made it happen. But I learned to be careful what I tell Seyi, as I might be called to account on a future date.

I have read several of the tributes that have been written on Seyi. And I realise that he touched many lives, just the way he touched mine. I am yet to find someone who met Seyi and was not captivated by his sheer electricity and presence. And so, I will not write a tribute. I fear that my words will not do justice to the person that Seyi was.

I had the rare privilege of working directly with Seyi from a young age in my career. I still remember a marketing call that we made. An American company had just set up shop in Nigeria and was in the process of choosing a tax consultant from among the top accounting firms in Nigeria and we had been invited. I spent several days on our presentation, making sure it would impress! When we finally got to the meeting, Seyi and the American spent the entire hour that the meeting was scheduled for, discussing American football! Seyi’s knowledge of the game and the players, past, and present was legendary. He knew the greats that the gentleman’s favorite team had produced, the positions they played, and the nuances to their style of play.

The American was so taken by him, that we barely had time to discuss the proposal. He told us right there and then, that he would like us to be his tax consultants and that he would be sending us a formal letter to that effect. I still wonder what he told the other firms that he had scheduled to meet. But I learned a valuable lesson on the power of relationships. Beyond our subject matter which we had to know better than the next person, Seyi taught us the power of having a broad knowledge of a wide variety of other subjects and being able to find the connection with the other party. In all the years I worked with him, I cannot think of a time when he was unable to find a point of connection with the several people we met together.

Seyi and I had a client that was a multinational company. The tax affairs of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa region were overseen by a gentleman that was based in the UK. He would visit Nigeria every quarter and part of what we did was to give him an update on the developments of the Nigerian political and economic environment and the implications for his business in Nigeria. At the end of one of those visits, Seyi and I got up to see him off. He shook Seyi’s hand at the door and asked if I could see him to his car. As we walked away from Seyi, he told me that he would like me to join his company. After seeing him off, I went right back to Seyi’s office and informed him of the discussion. But rather than dissuade me like I expected him to, he encouraged me to have the conversation and make up my own mind. One thing led to another and the company made me an offer to join their operations as an expatriate staff based in Europe. On informing Seyi, he offered to arrange meetings for me to speak with 2 ex-staff of the company that he knew before I made my final decision. I met separately with the gentlemen who both encouraged me to join the company, especially as I was to be an expatriate staff. I could see that Seyi wanted me to stay in the firm, but he respected my choice. He however informed me that he had submitted my name for partner consideration and did not see any reason why his proposal would not be accepted. As the formal announcement of the new partners was due in a couple of months, he suggested that I defer joining the company until after the announcement. As he explained it, this would have two benefits. First, it would read better on my CV saying I left the firm as a partner, rather than as a senior manager. And should I ever consider rejoining the firm in the future, there would be no question as to what level I should rejoin if I left as a partner. Although I did not think I will return to the firm at the time, I am glad I accepted this advice. It ultimately enabled me to return to the firm, after several years of working for a multinational company both in Europe and Nigeria. Of course, Seyi was heavily involved in luring me back to the firm, but that is a story for another day.

Write a tribute to Seyi, you say? But how do I find the words that would properly express what he was to me? How do I properly convey the fact that I owe whatever I am today to Seyi? How do I find better words than my colleague, Ajibola Olomola, who described him as a god amongst men’?

Kunle Elebute, the current National Senior Partner of KPMG in Nigeria and the Chairman of KPMG Africa in his tribute had this to say, and I quote:

“You were exemplary in everything that made you be worthy of emulation – dress sense, diligence, excellence, business ethics, personal discipline, modesty, financial prudence, results-driven, stewardship, health and fitness, humility and respect for the individual, which made you relate to all staff at every level as a brother and friend. We will all remember you as a great achiever, an exemplary leader, and an institutional builder, and you will go down in history as one of the most successful leaders of leading professional services firms in the world”.

So, I will not write a tribute for Seyi, as all the right words have been taken. But I will mourn him. He was everything to me. But above all, he was my friend. And in being my friend, he drove me harder than he did most people. Yes, it was apparent to most people that knew Seyi and me that we had a special relationship. And they naturally assumed that it made things easy for me. Nothing could have been further from the truth. We had our fights. Oh yes, we did! Seyi was not going to let me fall short of his expectations. I know that I am not quite where he would like me to be, but I am working on it.

My thoughts and prayers are with dear Catherine, his wife, and Melody and Amy, his daughters. If we, who merely felt the reflected warmth of Seyi’s personality are so grieved by his absence, I can only imagine how lost you, who basked in the direct heat of his love and devotion must be! My lovely Sophia and I have not ceased praying for you since we heard of his passing on 3rd March. But be consoled that if Seyi had had a choice on how he should go, it would have been exactly as he did – quietly leaving the scene without subjecting his loved ones to years and months of having to look after him on his sickbed. He would have liked all your memory of him to be exactly what it is; a husband and father that was the embodiment of rude health and infectious cheer, until the very end.

In some parts of Ibo land, there is this tradition that when a man dies, the wife is required to completely shave her hair, as a mark of honor for her husband. It is not a tradition we have in my part of Ibo land. But my mum shaved her hair when my dad died, although she was not required to. I shaved my hair when my mum died, although I was not required to. I will be shaving my hair in memory of my boss, mentor, and friend, Mr. Oluseyi Pesu Togonu-Bickersteth.

Thank you for investing a part of your life in me. Good night, boss. I will never forget you.

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